“Finance Professional” vs. “Financial Professional”

I recently delivered a writing workshop to a group of bankers. As is my wont, I tweaked the title of my presentation to include the phrase, “For Financial Professionals.” My host changed this to, “For Finance Professionals.”

Which phrase is better?

From a grammatical perspective, both are fine. Lest you think “finance” isn’t a noun, English allows a noun to be pressed into service as an adjective. For example, we say a “woman president.” In that case, “woman” is an “attributive” noun. Ditto for “finance” in the phrase “finance professional.”

From a usage perspective, I turned to Google Trends, which revealed that over the past year, “financial” is significantly more common than “finance.”

On the other hand, I can’t think of a country that has a “financial minister”; everyone has a “finance minister.”

So, which phrase is better?

Either is fine.

Commas Are Tricky

Wrong
The program evaluates your computer system, and then copies the files.

Right
1. The program evaluates your computer system and then copies the files.

2. The program evaluates your computer system, and then it copies the files.

3. The program evaluates your computer system, then copies the files.

4. The program evaluates your computer system; then it copies the files.

How a 6-Word Rewrite From Mister Rogers Can Make You a Better Writer

Fred Rogers (aka Mister Rogers) employed an in-house writer named Hedda Sharapan. At one point, Rogers enlisted Sharapan to write a manual to teach doctors how to talk to children. The journalist Tom Junod recounts what happened next:

“She worked hard on it, using all her education and experience in the field of child development, but when she handed him her opening, he crossed out what she’d written and replaced it with six words: ‘You were a child once too.’”

Those six small words contain three big lessons for writers:

1. Make Things Personal
The first word a reader sees? It’s “you.” Writing is an intimate transaction between two people; you’ll succeed to the extent that you address your reader directly.

2. Befriend Brevity
No doubt, the rewrite is a fraction of the original word count. Yet the rewrite is also no doubt more emphatic and more vigorous. As every writing guide anywhere has always advised: Shorter is usually stronger. (And more memorable.)

3. Use Familiar Examples
Specialists often get tunnel vision. They get so absorbed by research or statistics that they forget to make their work relatable. But as Rogers knew, one of the best ways to draw a reader in is to draw a connection between your point and his life. You can make even the densest concept resonate if you analogize it to something that’s immediately familiar.

Mass Nouns vs. Count Nouns

Here’s a sentence I wrote:

“Don’t confuse attention for alliance.”

What’s wrong with this? Nothing as far as I can tell. Of course, that’s why I use an editor — thank you, Paul Stregevsky! Paul has sharpened my language and taught me more about writing with vigor than anyone else.

Paul’s eagle eye spotted that I had compared a “mass” noun (attention) with a “count” noun (alliance). I didn’t even know there were different types of nouns! Paul explained the difference as follows:

“A mass noun is a noun that can’t be preceded by an article (a or an). Applesauce is a mass noun; apple is a count noun.”

Thus, I changed the sentence as follows:

“Don’t confuse attention for agreement.”

That’s much better (even if you never knew why).

Is the Phrase “Critically Important” Redundant?

“Critical” and “important” mean the same thing.

Therefore, to use the two terms together — “critically important,” as many people do — seems redundant.

Why not just say “critical” or “vital”?

I suspect the answer is because “critically important” is emphatic in a way that “critical” by itself is not. “Critically important” sounds more urgent and more serious than “critical.”

coronavirus. SARS-CoV-2. Covid-19

Thanks to Marco Arment for clarifying this:

1. “Coronavirus” is a category of many viruses, not just this one.

2. This virus is “SARS-CoV-2.”

3. The disease it causes in humans is “Covid-19.”

4. Before “SARS-CoV-2” was standardized, the virus was provisionally named “2019 novel coronavirus,” or “2019-nCov.”

The Wall Street Journal adds:

Coronavirus refers to the virus, not the illness. We have started using Covid-19 more to refer to the disease, as the term has become more familiar.”

When Should You Use a Comma?

Consider these two guidelines from Michelle Carey’s book. Developing Quality Technical Information: A Handbook for Writers and Editors (IBM Press):

1. When two or more sentences are joined by a coordinate conjunction, use a comma before the conjunction:

Wrong
The task was completed yet some data can’t be processed.

Right
The task was completed, yet some data can’t be processed.

2. If the second half of the sentence doesn’t have a subject and complete verb, don’t use a comma:

Wrong
The configuration manager deploys the application, and removes cookies.

Right
The configuration manager deploys the application and removes cookies.

Which Headline Is Correct?

1. Harvey Weinstein Will Be Sentenced to Between 5 and 29 Years in Prison

2. Harvey Weinstein Will Be Sentenced to a Prison Sentence of 5 to 29 Years

My colleague Paul says #2, because “sentenced to” should not be followed by an adverbial phrase. Rather, it should be followed by a noun or a noun phrase.

Are You Gen X, Y, or Z?

Thank you to the Wall Street Journal’s Style & Substance column for clarifying which label means what.

baby boomers

Lowercase when writing about those born during the bulge in U.S. population growth that appeared after World War II, known as the baby boom and generally considered by demographers to be the 19 years from 1946 through 1964.

Generation X

The term generally applies to people born in the U.S. from 1965 to 1980, after the baby boom. Also: Gen X and Gen Xers.

Generation Y

The term generally applies to people born in the U.S. from about 1981 until about 1996. The group is better known as millennials.

millennials

Lowercase when writing about the generation less commonly known as Generation Y, which is generally defined as people born from about 1981 until 1996. (However, as discussed before, millennials can often come off as snide shorthand, a trap we don’t want to fall into.)

Generation Z

The term generally applies to people born in the U.S. from about 1997 until 2012.

Generation Alpha

The term generally applies to people born in the U.S. after about 2012.

What if today’s typical corporate exec rewrote the Declaration of Independence?

Here’s what it might look like:

Jargon Has Consequences

You’ve heard me criticize jargon and extol simplicity. Now there’s research that makes the case even stronger.

According to a new study, people who read jargon-laced text walk away less interested in the given topic than people who read the same text but in plain language.

The study (which focused on science writing) found that jargon affects us in two specific ways:

1. Jargon makes us feel less informed about the topic at hand.

2. Jargon makes us feel less qualified to discuss the topic.

In short: Complex language leads readers to tune out.

By contrast, says the study’s lead author, “We’ve found that when you use more colloquial language, people report more interest, more ability to understand, and more confidence.”

What would Churchill’s soaring oratory look like in the hands of today’s typical corporate exec?

Here’s a fun comparison:



Are Verbs Always Better Than Adverbs?

Over at Self-Publishing School, Bella Rose Pope presents these two sentences:

1. I gripped the steering wheel firmly.

2. I clenched the steering wheel.

Pope says #2 is better, because a strong verb (“clench”) is better than a verb plus an adverb (“gripped firmly”).

I’m not sure I agree. What do you think?

nutshell

nutshell (v): to simplify a topic

Let me nutshell this for you.

How to Spot Bad Headlines Before They Make Your Visitors Bounce: An Intro to Easy Copy Validation [Copyhackers]

Which sentence is correct?

Which sentence is correct?

1. One in 12 people in our neighborhood don’t have a job.

2. One in 12 people in our neighborhood doesn’t have a job.

In my view, while #1 sounds right, #2 appears on paper to be right. Yet I can’t explain why.

So I asked my pal Paul, who said the following:

Two conflicting rules are at play here. Under one rule, the grammatical number is determined strictly by syntax:

“One in 12 people doesn’t.”

Under the other rule (which is called “synesis”), grammatical number is governed by the semantics — the sense:

“One in 12 people don’t.”

So which is better, I asked?

As usual, Paul suggested a rewrite that transcends the problem:

“One in every 12 people in our neighborhood doesn’t have a job.”

communications. communication

communication: the act of communicating

communications: the means of (or technology for) communicating

So:

“Facebook is a communications platform that facilitates communication.”

Is it “catercorner,” or “kitty-corner”?

Dan Saltzstein, a longtime senior editor at the New York Times, says it’s “cater-corner.”

Merriam-Webster disagrees. The entry for “catercorner” says “catercorner” is a “less common variant” of “kitty-corner.”

Is it “champing at the bit,” or “chomping at the bit”?

Dan Saltzstein, a longtime senior editor at the New York Times, says it’s “champing.”

Which Sentence Is Best?

1. Outsiders use language in a different way than insiders do.

2. Outsiders use language differently than insiders do.

3. Outsiders use language differently from insiders.

They all are, though I favor #2.

What do you think?

Does a Dash in a Headline Affect the Capitalization of the Next Word?

Thank you to the Wall Street Journal’s always-interesting “Style and Substance” column for clarifying an issue I’ve never been sure about:

Which headline is correct (focus on the word “and”)?

1. Dow Ends Unchanged — and That’s News

2. Dow Ends Unchanged — And That’s News

According to the Journal, #1 is correct:

“We lowercase words after a dash if they are normally lowercased in headlines (but uppercase after a colon).”

gantlet. gauntlet. gamut

Thank you to the Wall Street Journal’s always-interesting “Style and Substance” column for clarifying the following nuance:

You run the gantlet, not the gauntlet.

gantlet is a literal or figurative flogging ordeal. “The politician ran a gantlet of criticism for his immigration policy.”

gauntlet is a medieval glove thrown down to issue a challenge. If you “take up the gauntlet,” you accept the challenge. If you “throw down the gauntlet,” you pick a fight.

A gamut is a complete range or extent. “The film library contained the gamut of genres from classics to children’s movies.”

How to Handle a Twitter Handle

If I told you that my Twitter handle is “@jrick,” most people would pronounce this as “at J-R-I-C-K.”

I think that’s wrong. I think the “@” is a given, so I’d just say, “J-R-I-C-K.”

Apparently, I’m alone. Even the Wall Street Journal, in its latest “Style and Substance” column, pronounces the “@” symbol.

Specifically, whereas I would write, “Follow me on Twitter at @jrick,” they’d write, “Follow me on Twitter @jrick.”

Does the Phrase “All of” Bother You?

I posed the following question to my colleague, Paul Stregevsky.

Question
Consider the following sentence:

“Deliveries have shown big potential, making up almost all of Whole Foods’s growth.”

As an editor, I would strike “of.”

What do you think? Would you let it be?

Answer
I would let it be, and so would Bryan Garner. From Garner’s Modern English Usage:

In two circumstances, all of is the better choice.

1. When a pronoun follows “all of them.”

2. When a possessive noun follows. For example: “Beyond all of Jones’ ego-stroking maneuvers and incessant need for attention, this is what he is talking about.”

Of course, because this is Bryan Garner, he points out two exceptions to #1: When the pronoun is serving as an adjective — either possessive (“all my belongings”) or demonstrative (“all that jazz”).

​Do You Know the Difference Between “Bold” and “Italics”?

​Technically, bold and italics communicate the same point: Emphasis. But they’re not interchangeable. In fact, in nearly every kind of professional writing, bold and italics are used in distinctly different ways.

Italics are used to emphasize a certain word or phrase within your body text. For example: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

To be sure, bold is sometimes used for the same purpose, but only on the names of important people or companies. For example, this is how gossip columns or ​trade publications work.

By far, the more common use of bold is on headings.

Are you confused? Do you disagree? I welcome your questions and comments.

Gerunds Take the Possessive

Which sentence is correct?

1. Our withdrawal depends on Turkey pledging not to attack the Kurds.

2. Our withdrawal depends on Turkey’s pledging not to attack the Kurds.

#2 is correct, for a simple reason: Because gerunds (in this case, Turkey) take the possessive.

Similarly, which of these sentences is correct?

1. I appreciate you taking time to talk with me.

2. I appreciate your taking time to talk with me.

Again, #2 is correct, for a simple reason: Because gerunds (in this case, taking) take the possessive.

What Does the "Fold" Suffix Actually Mean?

The Wall Street Journal explains something I could never quite figure out:

Twofold, fourfold, ninefold. But use numerals and a hyphen for numbers 10 and over: 12-fold.

Remember that -fold means times. So an increase from 1 to 2 is a twofold increase (1 times 2), or a 100% increase. An increase from $5 to $25 is a fivefold increase (we view -fold increase as an idiom that includes the base amount), but a 400% increase.

The use of -fold means your percentage amount and your fold amount will be off by one degree.

When in doubt, try to avoid the -fold construction entirely.

Sarah Koenig Can Write!

“Koenig writes like real people talk. Instead of telling us about ‘the defendant,’ she describes ‘the cookie baker’ facing a felony conviction for offering a marijuana cookie to an unknowing acquaintance. The man who assaulted a woman at a bar becomes the ‘ass slapper.’”

Lessons for Writers From Serial’s Year in a Courthouse

What if We Interpreted the Jargon of Washington, D.C., Literally?

Take it away, Famous D.C.:

Amelia was arrested for running up the flagpole of Cannon.

Amelia dropped $200 at the supply store in Longworth trying to buy more bandwidth.

Amelia was arrested again for flashing tourists as she opened the kimono.

Amelia ordered a lasso on Amazon when her LD asked her to loop in more offices.

Amelia racked up $600 in speeding tickets when the press secretary suggested she run the traps on a press release.

Amelia took up yoga after all the reaching out she was doing.

Amelia embarrassed herself when she showed up to a jam sesh with a PB&J.

Amelia got so dizzy from circling back on her boss’ email that she passed out in the Rayburn Foyer.

Amelia got stuck on the Bay Bridge making a trip to Ocean City to try and help her chief boil the ocean.

Amelia set fire in the intern housing by putting that resolut1on on the back burner (of the stove).

Amelia was arrested yet again for chasing the ducks by the reflecting pool in an effort to get them in a row.

Amelia was lectured by the cops for calling 911 when the LC was not “actually, literally, dying” in that Friday 9:30 AM meeting.

Amelia took up meditation after her Scheduler asked her repeatedly to take something to Hart.

Amelia started doing 50 squats a day when she saw an email about leg staffers being on the path to success.

Amelia got caught by her boss throwing money on the ground because she heard they were dropping a bill today.

Amelia scoured Yelp! for veterinarians who could help make the lame duck better.

Amelia rode the elevator for hours trying to guess which floor was “the floor.”

Amelia re-read the entire Harry Potter series to try and earn Cloak Room status.

Amelia ate nothing but Spaghetti O’s in an effort to learn the alphabet-soup language everyone spoke of.

Amelia went to confession because she felt so guilty about her boss’ plan to kill the bill in committee.

Amelia ordered hearing aids for her boss because she heard he wasn’t attending any hearings.

Amelia bought her boss a Kindle after hearing him yell at the press secretary for not getting him booked on TV.

When Being Inexact Is Perfectly Correct

Two years ago, the New York Times reported that on his 1996 income-tax returns, Donald Trump declared a $916 million loss.

When discussing this fact, most of us round “$916 million” up to “$1 billion.”

That’s both appropriate and advisable. In short, “one billion” is more memorable than “916 million.” Indeed, “a billion bucks” is not only easier to recall; it’s also easier to articulate.

Note: You could also round down, to $900 million. But most people, as a matter of tradition, tend to round up.

Postscript: One of my students points out an important nuance: While the headline should cite “$1B,” the article itself should use the actual number.

metonym. synonym

Earlier this month, I emailed Merriam-Webster the following question. Associate Editor, Neil Serven, replied as follows.

Q: Can you help me understand the difference between these two words?

A: A metonym is a figure of speech in which something is referred to by another thing with which it is closely associated. A common example is the use of City Hall to refer to the government of a city (as in “you can’t fight City Hall”), when literally it refers to the building that houses a city’s government offices.

Typically, synonym refers to a word that can stand in for another word and retain the same meaning, such as lukewarm for tepid, or avarice for greed, or java for coffee.

In extended use, however, synonym is something used when metonym is meant, as when one says, “Peoria has become a synonym for Middle America.”

A Better Way to Write a Long List

Two years ago, the following sentence appeared in the New York Times (the context is irrelevant to my point):

“Among those he identified were Mr. Christie’s chief counsel, his chief of staff and his press secretary, as well as a confidant he had picked as Port Authority chairman, his campaign manager and his political strategist.”

Most people wouldn’t give this sentence a second thought. And that’s as it should be. But to wordsmiths like me, what’s interesting is the way this sentence isn’t written:

“Among those he identified were Mr. Christie’s chief counsel, his chief of staff, his press secretary, a confidant he had picked as Port Authority chairman, his campaign manager and his political strategist.”

The second example is how most of us would write a list: By citing everything in a single clause.

Yet the “as well as” transition in the first example doesn’t feel forced at all. To the contrary, it flows naturally.

I suspect the reasoning for this unorthodox construction is that rattling off six things in a row inclines the reader’s eyes to glaze over, whereas citing three things, followed by three things, is easier to digest.

Coincidentally, around the same time as the article in the Times, an article in Time pulled off the same trick. Here’s the sentence:

“There will be a Madam President, after so many female governors and Senators and Prime Ministers, so many female entrepreneurs and CEOs, so many female judges and chancellors.”

Here, I suspect the reason for the odd listing is lyrical: The pairing off by two sounds so much better than one big mouthful: “Female governors, Senators, Prime Ministers, entrepreneurs, CEOs, judges and chancellors.”

Addendum (10/2/2019):

Here’s another example from the Times:

“Among those in the room were Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary at the time; Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state; Kevin K. McAleenan, the Customs and Border Protection chief at the time; and Stephen Miller, the White House aide who, more than anyone, had orchestrated Mr. Trump’s immigration agenda. Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff was also there, along with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and other senior staff.”

How to Break Up a Long List Within a Single Sentence

Here are two sentences from my bio (which I’m in the process of rewriting):

1. He’s spoken before clients such as Nascar, Axa, Visa, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Defense, Booz Allen Hamilton, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

2. His work has appeared in top-tier publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, TimeFast Company, Forbes, and Mashable.

The problem? These lists are seven items long, which is a mouthful when read aloud (or even just read on a screen; our eyes glaze over them — even mine).

Ideally, I’d turn these eye sores into bullet points. After all, this is what I teach my students.

And yet, I fear that bullets in the middle of a short bio would be awkward.

Is there another solution? Why, yes, there is! To break up each list into two smaller sets; to create clusters. Here’s what I came up with:

1. He’s spoken before clients such as Nascar, Visa, Booz Allen Hamilton, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

2. His work has appeared in top-tier publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, along with business-oriented outlets like Fast Company, Forbes, and Mashable.

As you can see, I used the phrases “as well as” and “along with” to create demarcations and thus pauses. As a result, the revised sentences are far more readable than the original ones.

Why I Discourage My Students From Using the Phrase, “I Feel”

Here’s an email I just sent to my students.

My objection derives from what I perceive among students as an unnecessary lack of confidence. When someone begins an answer by saying, “I just feel that,” what I hear is, “I’m hedging because I’m afraid I’m wrong.”

(The same is true for expressions such as “I’m not sure but,” or “This may not be right, but.”)

To be sure, doubt is sometimes fully appropriate. And constant certitude can be conceited. Yet more often than not, in my view, such trepidation is unwarranted.

As I said in our first class, I believe that you each are smarter than you give yourself credit for. So when I hear hesitant, noncommittal language, it pains me.

When you speak or write, I’d encourage you to have the courage of your convictions.

Postscript (10/6/2018):

I just came across these wise words from career coach Zeta Yarwood:

“Confident people aren’t confident because they know everything. Their confidence comes from knowing that, even though they don’t know everything, they know enough.”

Postscript (11/3/2018):

Compare these sentences:

1. We feel we’re qualified for this project because of our work with Washington’s top trade associations.

2. We’re confident we’re qualified for this project because of our work with Washington’s top trade associations.

3. We’re qualified for this project because of our work with Washington’s top trade associations.

4. Our work with Washington’s top trade associations qualifies us for this project.

Each one is stronger than the previous one, no?

Does Punctuation Matter? Just Ask These Women

A professor wrote on the blackboard, “Woman without her man is nothing.” The students were then instructed to punctuate the sentence.

The male students wrote, “Woman, without her man, is nothing.”

The female students wrote, “Woman! Without her, man is nothing.”

Practicing What I Preach

Here’s a sentence I can’t believe I wrote this morning:

“The mindset of privileging the institution over the individual exemplifies an insidious form of insecurity.”

In rereading this, I immediately recognized how stilted it was, and so rewrote it as follows:

“When you value the institution over the individual, you betray your insecurity.”

The lesson? Write the way you speak, and embrace personal pronouns.

When Elegant Variation Makes Sense

A client recently asked me to edit a document about sales figures. One of the first things that stood out was the repeated use of the words “increase” and “decrease.”

What a letdown, especially with a subject like numbers, where the writing can quickly get repetitive. One of the great virtues of English is that it’s brimming with synonyms.

To be sure, you don’t want to succumb to what Fowler called “elegant variation” — unnecessarily swapping out a perfectly good word (like “said”) for another (“uttered”) solely to avoid repetition. But you do want to take advantage of the different meanings between, say, “decrease” and “plunge,” between “increase” and “skyrocket.”

Here’s a quick list of alternatives:

Decrease
call
crater
dive
drop
fall
plunge
shed
slip
tumble

Increase
balloon
grow
jump
rise
shoot up
soar
spike

Only in Fantasy Football Will You Find These Names

1. Hugh G. Rection

2. Mike Hunt

3. Buster Hymen

4. Justin Casey Feltersnatch

5. Suq Maddiq

6. Anita Cock

7. Craven Morehead

8. Heywood Jablowme

9. Amanda Hugginkiss

Great Writers ​Replace ​C​lichés With ​Puns

Here’s an email I just sent to my business-writing students:

​Great writers subtly violate their reader’s expectations in order to surprise, to delight, or to emphasize a point.

For example, instead of relying on a cliché, great writers create a pun. (As wordsmith par excellence William Safire memorably put it, “Avoid clichés like the plague; seek viable alternatives.”)

You may remember the example I used in class: Instead of saying, “Go big, or go home,” try saying something like, “Go big, then go home.”

This is punning 1.0. But if you want to get fancy, here’s how to create a 2.0 pun:

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.” It means, If you’re preparing to do battle, then suit up appropriately.

To avoid this cliché, most writers might change “knife” or “gun” to something even more dramatic — say, “pillow” or “grenade.” That’s good, but not great. Great writers would go one step further.

For example, here’s a sentence I just read by Eric Levitz (note: the subject of the sentence, Michael Avenatti, is a pugilist who would explode the Queensbury Rules practiced by today’s congressional Democrats):

“Avenatti is bringing a knife to a policy fight.”

The pun is subtle yet sophisticated. It changes the original in a way you don’t anticipate, but which you appreciate. And that’s the stuff of which great writing is made.

When Is It Ok to Change the Punctuation or Spelling in a Company’s Name?

My colleague Paul and I had a fun debate today. Here’s a recap:

Organizations like Debevoise & Plimpton, Ben & Jerry’s, and Barnes & Noble all spell their names with an ampersand (“&”). (For official confirmation, I checked their SEC filings.)

I always change the “&” to “and”; Paul declines the edit. Respect the company’s choice, he says.

Am I distorting these companies’ choices, their legal names, in some cases their trademarks? Well, yes!

But I do it for the sake of standardization. For the same reason, back when “Yahoo” was spelled “Yahoo!” and “Recode,” “Re/code,” I removed the “!” and “/.”

And yet, as much as it pains me, I wouldn’t correct “Chick-fil-A” to “Chick Fillet,” or “Dunkin’ Donuts” to “Dunkin’ Doughnuts.” Isn’t this a glaring inconsistency?

No. To me, “&” and “!” are mere punctuation marks, which editors rightly change to fit their house style. Ditto for “centre” to “center” or “behaviour” to “behavior.” By contrast, changing the actual spelling of a name is a bridge too far.

For example, tweaking “Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services” to “Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services” is a matter of style. But tweaking “Publix” to “Public” is a matter of substance.

(For a fascinating backgrounder on this subject, check out this article in Slate by Matthew J.X. Malady.)

Postscript (9/15/2018):

Somehow, I overlooked another punctuation mark: The missing comma. For example, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid is a title of a book by Jimmy Carter. “Bed Bath & Beyond” is the name of a retailer.

I cringe when writing these appellations because they’re so obviously missing a comma.

The question: Should we correct them (to Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid and “Bed, Bath & Beyond”)?

Postscript (9/18/2018):

Sadly — or perhaps unsurprisingly — Paul, John, and I are still discussing this. Thanks to Paul for getting to the heart of the matter:

“There’s little agreement on which attributes qualify as intrinsic:

“1. Is the use of an ampersand in place of “and” an intrinsic part of an organization’s name?

“2. Is an apostrophe’s misuse (“Lands’ End”), absence (“Joes Diner”), or spurious use (imagine a “Linens’ and Things”) an intrinsic part of a company’s name?

“3. Is a nonstandard use of uppercase or lowercase an intrinsic part of a company’s name?

All good questions.

Is It “The DoD,” or Just “DoD”?

I have a client who works at the FDA. Except that she would edit that sentence to read, “I have a client who works at FDA.”

The difference? I say “the FDA”; she says “FDA.”

To decide which is better, try this: If you spell out “FDA,” which phrase sounds better?

1. “Works at the Food and Drug Administration.”

2. “Works at Food and Drug Administration.”

It’s not even close. #2 sounds awkward, whereas #1 sounds natural.

And yet, a different colleague tells me this issue isn’t that simple. According to Paul, using or not using the definite article (“the”) isn’t a hard-and-fast rule you can apply across the board. His advice: Use “the” before an initialism (e.g., the DoD, the NSA), but drop the “the” before an acronym (e.g., NASA, NIST).

On its face, this guideline seems reasonable. Yet the more I ponder it, the more I remain unsatisfied. In my view, the distinction isn’t between abbreviations and initialisms; it’s a matter of plain English. Just spell-out the sentence, as we did earlier with the FDA, and the answer will emerge clearly.

That’s because the absence of “the” (“works at Food and Drug Administration”) is distracting. It makes the listener pause because it makes the speaker sound like he’s still learning English.

If only the debate ended here.

But Paul then turned to another expert, John, who pointed to a different trick: Use “the” when you pronounce the letters (e.g., the FBI, pronounced “eff bee igh”; or the FDA, pronounced “eff dee ay”), but drop the “the” when you pronounce the abbreviation (e.g., NASA, pronounced “na suh”; NIST).

Got that? Letters vs. abbreviations.

John concluded by referencing a quintessential quirk of the English language:

“There may be some exceptions to this rule. For example, no one would say, ‘He went to the MIT.’”

Don’t you just love language?

How to Use a Colon the Right Way

When you use a colon to introduce a list, make sure to write a complete thought first. Your lead-in should be a complete thought.

So:

Wrong
Next year, we must increase crease our marketing in: the West, the Pacific Northwest, and the Southern regions.

Right
Next year, we must increase our marketing in three regions: the West, the Pacific Northwest, and the South.

Notice how the complete sentence does a much better job of helping the reader anticipate how the expression will end.

—Richard Lauchman, Punctuation at Work: Simple Principles for Achieving Clarity and Good Style

insist. insists

Wrong
I’m one of those people who insists on correctness.

Right
I’m one of those people who insist on correctness.

Why You Should Use a Hyphen: “The Millisecond of Ambiguity”

Wise counsel from Bill Walsh, author of Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk:

To me, hyphens are to writing what turn signals are to driving: helpful, unobtrusive and far too often considered optional. Many in the odd-editor community disagree. Taking to heart the rationale that hyphens are used to avoid ambiguity, they are forever searching for reasons to declare certain modifiers or sorts of modifiers unambiguous and thus exempt from hyphenation.

So you have to ask yourself: What do you do when confronted with something like Doctor helps car crash victims?

Do you hyphenate all instances for consistency in this story but approach other stories case by case? Or do you just recognize that it’s a good idea to hyphenate compound modifiers and avoid all that torture?

More alarming to me was Time’s cover story about “The Only Child Myth.” What the editors meant, of course, was the only-child myth. I fear that someone on the “creative” side thought a hyphen would be all ugly and cluttery.

I’m the kind of person who uses a turn signal before changing lanes even when nobody’s watching. Just as you can’t predict when a car is going to materialize out of nowhere, you can’t necessarily predict how your copy is going to be read.

The millisecond of ambiguity is the rationale behind my policy of strictly hyphenating compound modifiers. If I simply wrote white truffle purveyors, you would briefly wonder whether the purveyors were white, and you’d have to backtrack and mentally insert the hyphen that applies the whiteness to the truffles.

forego. forgo

Before you instinctively “correct” forego to forgo, you should know that these are in fact two different words, with two different meanings.

Forego means “to come before.”

Forgo means “to do without.”

6 Signs the Guy Editing Your Work Is an Amateur

He:

1. Believes the many fallacious “rules” she learned from her third-grade teacher.

2. Hasn’t read a book on writing since Strunk and White in college.

3. Has no clue about true best practices backed up by research into how people read.

4. Insists that the passive voice is “always” wrong, not just wrong in a particular context.

5. Hypercorrects by “correcting” CMS’s to CMS’, him to himself, supersedes to supercedes, and forgoing to foregoing.

6. Thinks that contractions are unprofessional.

—Adapted from an email from Paul Stregevsky.

A Writing Tip So Obvious I’m Embarrassed I Never Thought of It Until Now

While it’s written for journalists, the same principle applies to writing in general.

From the Wall Street Journal’s latest language column:

If your lede starts off with an official, an agency, an organization, or a company following some sort of process, take another look. Yes, sometimes the process being followed is the news, but usually it’s not.

Process
A special committee of the board of directors of XYZ Corp. recommended Monday that Chief Executive John Schmidlapp resign over sexual-misconduct allegations that have dogged him since January.

Better
XYZ Corp. Chief Executive John Schmidlapp should resign over sexual-misconduct allegations that have dogged him since January, a special committee of the company’s board of directors said Monday.

Is It Ok to Use the Serial Comma Inconsistently?

I teach my students that whether they favor or oppose the serial comma, it’s important that they be consistent above all else.

Yet check out these two sentences from a recent op-ed in the ​​New York Times​:

“Conservatives and people of the right value these things as well but have several additional moral touchstones — loyalty, respect and sanctity. They value in-group solidarity, deference to authority, and the protection of purity in mind and body.”

Is there any justifiable excuse for such inconsistency — especially in the most coveted real estate in journalism?